|A MESS called AMASS|
June 26, 2000 - Unexpected Dangers on the Runways
LOS ANGELES, California (USA) - Despite the FAA's efforts to curb the problem of near collisions, there were 320 close calls in each of the last two years.
United Airlines Flight 38 from Maui was seconds away from landing at Los Angeles International Airport, flaps extended and wheels down, when the flight crew saw something startling in the predawn shadows.
"There's somebody on the runway," the pilot radioed the tower.
"No, there isn't," responded the one controller working on the midnight shift.
Moments earlier the controller had directed another Boeing 757 to hold for takeoff on the same runway and had apparently forgotten, according to a safety investigation of the Jan. 3, 1999, incident. A collision was narrowly averted after the pilot aborted the landing on his own, powering up as he crossed Sepulveda Boulevard and missing the plane on the ground by about 150 feet.
Back in the tower, the controller was apparently so unnerved that he began hyperventilating. Though he later denied being frightened, his gulps for air were recorded on tape, investigators said.
Flight 38's close call sent a shudder through the Federal Aviation Administration, recalling a fiery 1991 crash that killed 34 people on the same runway on the north side of LAX, known as 24L. A controller had mistakenly placed a departing commuter plane, SkyWest Flight 5569, in front of arriving USAir Flight 1493.
Disasters in flight stir fear, a feeling that life can disintegrate in an instant amid scraps of metal. But one of the gravest perils to passengers occurs, unexpectedly, in the moments when they are on the runway: landing, taking off or taxiing to and from the terminal.
There were more than 320 close encounters similar to Flight 38's in each of the last two years at U.S. airports. In the United States, 59 people died in five runway collisions of scheduled flights during the last decade as congestion at airports increased.
The FAA, which runs the nation's air traffic control system, has failed in its attempts to resolve the problem. Costly technological disappointments, revolving-door management and the sheer complexity of coordinating 68 million takeoffs and landings each year at more than 460 airports have hampered its efforts, according to interviews with key officials and documents obtained by The Times.
In the most conspicuous example, the FAA has labored for nearly 10 years on an early warning radar system for controllers that is likely to be overtaken by a privately developed technology that relies on a global position system by the time it goes into operation in 2002. Known by its acronym, AMASS (Airport Movement Area Safety System), the system has been plagued by so many delays and cost overruns that software engineers have dubbed it "AMESS."
Once budgeted at $60 million, AMASS is now estimated to cost taxpayers more than $150 million.
The FAA's failure to solve the runway incursion problem is of special concern in California, where six airports--LAX, John Wayne, San Francisco, Long Beach, San Diego and Palm Springs--are being closely monitored because of the high number of incidents. The reasons for problems vary from airport to airport. Only last Tuesday, Long Beach recorded a close call between two private planes--its sixth of the year.
Officially, these are termed "runway incursions." But the deadliest accident in civil aviation history--the 1977 crash of two jumbo jets that killed 582 people in the Canary Islands--was a runway incursion.
Not quite four months ago, two private planes collided on a runway in Sarasota, Fla., in broad daylight. Four people died. That accident is still under investigation, but investigators suspect that a series of errors in the control tower put the planes on a collision path.
That incident, on March 9, was one of 151 runway incursions in the United States from January through May of this year, a 28% increase over the same period in 1999.
In some cases, planes passed with no immediate threat of actually colliding. In others, jumbo jets came breathtakingly close to impact. In every case, danger lurked a few seconds down the runway.
"It is just a matter of time before we have a disastrous runway collision if more is not done to address this issue soon," said Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Despite repeated warnings from the NTSB and the Transportation Department's inspector general, things keep getting worse. Even allowing for the increase in air traffic, runway incursions at domestic airports went up 31% from 1989 to 1999.
Now the FAA is convening an unprecedented meeting on runway safety in Washington on Monday. Inviting airport managers, pilots, controllers and academics, the FAA hopes to invigorate thinking on how to solve the problem.
It is also considering recommendations made last week by the NTSB, including requiring pilots to stop at every intersection on the runways.
And, embarrassed by its shortcomings on the technology side, the FAA has gone low-tech, launching a massive education campaign to urge more care and caution among the nation's 600,000 pilots, thousands of controllers in hundreds of air traffic towers and countless airport vehicle drivers.
"Technology is certainly valuable, but the key ingredient for us is education," said John Mayrhofer, a veteran air traffic manager who was brought in last fall to overhaul the FAA's runway safety program, which has had four directors since 1996.
Since human fallibility is a common thread in runway incursions, the FAA has been sponsoring dozens of workshops at airports around the country.
Everything from crisper communication to clearer runway markings is on the agenda.
"While the statistics do not reflect a decrease in runway incursions, I am convinced that the actions that have been taken have actually improved safety," said Mayrhofer. "We have higher awareness, improved training, better signs, marking and lighting on the surfaces of our airports."
For most passengers, takeoffs and landings are a time of silent anticipation and mild anxiety. But for controllers and pilots, these are periods of intense activity, with dozens of details to attend to in little time. In that burst of effort lie the seeds of many runway incursions.
Mike Foote, the controllers union head at the Los Angeles tower, said that controllers refer to the peak-hour landing approach to LAX as the "Combat One Arrival."
"Pilots get sped up, they get slowed down," said Foote. "They get moved around. We send them to the north side of the airport. We send them to the south side. We're trying to slam the pilots into itty-bitty holes. We talk too fast, say too many complex instructions."
Said Todd Thornton, a Boeing 737 captain: "You have to appreciate that this machine is in transition from an air machine to a ground machine--it goes from fast to slow. It is noisy. The thrust reversers are blasting away.
Many times, there is a transfer of control going on. The first officer does the landing and the captain does the taxiing."
In those conditions, it is possible to misunderstand a controller's instructions, said Thornton. It's possible to miss a turn to a runway exit or to fail to stop at an intersection, violating the cardinal rule that only one airliner at a time belongs on a runway.
Such miscommunication was blamed for a near-collision at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York last June. An Air France 747 had just landed and was instructed by controllers to stop at a runway intersection.
According to an NTSB investigation, the pilot got the instructions wrong.
Then the controller did not catch the error when the pilot "read back" incorrect orders.
The Air France jet lumbered through the intersection as an Icelandair 757 was taking off. They came so close that the exhaust from the Air France plane actually tipped the right wing of the Icelandair jet as it lifted off.
A nearly identical scenario unfolded at LAX during the busy Thanksgiving travel week last year. At 10:36 p.m. on Nov. 22, an Aeromexico MD-80 that had just landed mistakenly crossed a runway on which a United Boeing 757 was taking off. The United pilot saw the Aeromexico jet and quickly got airborne, clearing it by about 100 feet. Former Republican presidential candidates Bob and Elizabeth Hanford Dole were aboard the United flight.
According to NTSB investigators, a controller had instructed the Aeromexico pilot to taxi toward his gate and "hold short"--meaning stop--at runway 25R.
The Aeromexico crew read back "cross 25R," but the controller thought she heard "short 25R."
Earlier this month, another near-collision based on human error was avoided because of a heads-up call by an air traffic controller.
The pilot of a private plane nosed toward a runway at Providence, R.I., as a Delta Boeing 737 was accelerating to take off. According to the FAA, a controller saw what was happening and radioed the Delta pilot to stop before the airliner could pick up speed.
The search for a technological solution for the runway safety problem began in 1991, when the NTSB recommended an early warning system to keep planes from straying onto collision courses in the first place. That year there were 242 runway incursions.
The FAA quickly responded that it already had thought of such a system:
AMASS. It would use sophisticated computer programs to analyze hundreds of bits of radar information from an airport's ground and air traffic. It would predict incursions and an electronic voice would warn controllers before planes got in each other's way. AMASS was expected to be functional by 1996.
But the FAA has a troubled history with high-tech projects. AMASS is no different.
Alexis Stefani, the Transportation Department's assistant inspector general for audits, blamed the problem on the FAA's "inability in the past" to manage its acquisition of computer software, the principal component of modern air traffic control systems.
As late as June of last year, in a video prepared for the Paris Air Show, the FAA was still promoting AMASS as a detection device.
Within the agency, however, red flags already had been raised.
That January, the agency received an analysis from the Mitre Corp., which does extensive technical consulting for the military and other government agencies.
In the study, obtained by The Times, Mitre used a computer to re-create nine actual runway incursions. It found a high likelihood that AMASS would not have warned the tower in time in four of the incidents. Its conclusion:
"AMASS will not prevent all surface accidents."
In the spring, the FAA got more bad news. A team of controllers conducted a thorough evaluation of AMASS. They found it prone to give false alerts.
"This was a piece of machinery that was crying wolf," said Bill Blackmer, safety director for the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. "If you get too many false alerts, you start ignoring it. Then, if the real thing comes along, you wouldn't know."
Technicians eventually came up with an answer to the false alarms: Turn off the AMASS alert for taxiways. Now, in the pared-down version of AMASS being readied for LAX and other airports by 2002, a warning will only sound after a plane is actually trespassing on an occupied runway and on a collision course with another aircraft.
But that is hardly what planners envisioned for AMASS, and it remains unacceptable to the NTSB. "It leaves us with a concern," said Bernard Loeb, aviation safety director for the NTSB. "The FAA pared it back significantly."
The FAA's Michael Huffman, who took over as head of the AMASS program last summer, agreed that the system will not prevent planes from getting in each other's way.
"Everybody felt like AMASS was going to solve the runway incursion problem.
We were going to solve world hunger," he said. "I realized that was not the case."
But he maintained that AMASS can serve as "a last line of defense" to prevent collisions.
"On the runway incursions that are going to kill people, we're going to be alerting [pilots]," he said. "That's the most important part."
But the NTSB questions whether AMASS will even provide timely warning after two planes have invaded each other's space.
At the NTSB's request, the FAA conducted a computer re-creation of a close call involving two Boeing 747s at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in 1999. The study found that AMASS would only have provided six seconds of warning.
And NTSB Chairman Hall said that six seconds would not have given controllers and pilots enough time to respond. "Luck was with those passengers and crew," said Hall. "But relying on luck doesn't make for good public policy."
Some experts are hopeful about a new technology known as ADS-B. Designed by a subsidiary of United Parcel Service--UPS Aviation Technologies--it is a distant technological cousin of satellite navigation devices available on rental cars and luxury automobiles and can be used during flight or on the ground. A pilot would not have to wait for a controller to warn him that another plane is in the way; it would be visible on his screen. UPS is testing the technology with the FAA's support and hopes to install it in its cargo fleet within the next two years.
"If you have two pilots who can see each other on the surface," said Karen Lee, a UPS captain and manager of advanced flight systems, "they are not going to run into each other."
But after its disappointment with AMASS, the NTSB is not waiting. It is studying one idea, already used at some European airports, to require stoplights that turn red when a runway is occupied.
And harried FAA officials, mindful of the failures of the last decade, just might embrace it.
Runway incursions at U.S. airports have risen dramatically from 223 close calls in 1989 to 321 in 1999, 10 of which occurred at LAX. This year, they are averaging one a day.
*On Nov. 22, 1999, at 10:36 p.m., pilots of an Aeromexico MD-80 that had just landed misunderstood a controller's instructions and entered a runway being used by a United Boeing 757 for takeoff. GOP dignitaries Bob and Elizabeth Hanford Dole were on the United flight.